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Photo Source: Dawn

Pakistan Reader# 249, 10 November 2021

Smog, pollution and more: Deteriorating air quality in Pakistan



Lahore is in the news for its bad air quality; but the problem is deeper than is seen in the news with experts terming it a health emergency

Apoorva Sudhakar

On 31 October, Lahore was ranked second among the top five cities with bad air quality, trailing behind India’s New Delhi. The particulate matter (PM) level in Lahore was recorded at 188, thereby placing itself in the “unhealthy” category on the US Air Quality Index. On 6 October 2021, the IQAir portal however showed that Lahore ranked first on the list, placing itself in the “hazardous” category with a US AQI of 343. Meanwhile, the average PM 2.5 levels in Lahore in 2021, was ten times higher than the WHO standards.
 
Understanding the AQI and PM 2.5
The AQI ranges from 0 to 500 with six categories on the levels of concern, with lower AQI values placing the location in the safe categories. According to the scale, if the AQI falls between 0 to 50, then the level of concern is “Good” and “the air quality is satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.” The 51 to 100 range is “Moderate” with an “acceptable” air quality with a risk to people sensitive to air pollution. The 101 to 150 range is “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” wherein sensitive groups are likely to be subject to health experiences and the general public is largely unaffected. The 151 to 200 category is “Unhealthy” wherein the general public is also affected and sensitive groups may undergo aggravated health experiences. The 201 to 300 category is “Very Unhealthy” and with everyone being under a health alert. The final category where the AQI goes to 301 and above is the “Hazardous category” with a “Health warning of emergency conditions.”
 
PM 2.5 are fine inhalable particles with a diameter smaller than a strand of hair and are emitted from unpaved roads, fires, constructions, pollution from industries, power plants, and vehicles. They are formed due to reactions between chemicals like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
 
The situation in Pakistan: A view of Punjab
In Pakistan, Lahore has constantly been suffering the ills of air pollution; in 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a report aimed at mapping smog in Punjab, after it became a noticeable problem in the province since the 1990s. While Punjab’s industrial belt contributes to nearly 60 per cent of the country’s annual growth, it comes at a cost - industrial and vehicular pollution, as well as burning biomass and crop residue. The FAO report focuses on Gujranwala, Gujrat, Hafizabad, Faisalabad, Narowal, Sialkot, Mandi Bahaudin, Kasur, Lahore, Sheikhupura, and Nankana Sahib districts. The study shows that in these districts, the maximum emissions were witnessed in Gujranwala from burning rice crop residue, followed by Sheikhupura, Hafizabad, and Sialkot.
Similar studies suggest that transport contributes 43 per cent to emissions, followed by industry 25 per cent. Agriculture contributes 20 per cent to emissions and power 12 per cent. In Punjab, crop residue burning, the problem is exacerbated by crop residue burning and thermal invasion, which is a process which “traps particulate matter and other pollutants, which mix with condensed water vapour to form smog.”
 
The situation is spreading to parts of northern Sindh. When extrapolated across Pakistan, the prevailing situation is dangerous. A feature published by Dawn in 2017, cites a study conducted by the Health Effects Institute in Boston which says that an estimated 135,00 deaths in 2015 were caused due to the existing air quality. Similarly, the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) outlines that air pollution in some areas of Pakistan is shortening lives by seven years. The AQLI suggests that if the problem of particulate pollution is addressed, residents in Lahore would gain 5 years in life expectancy; in Karachi, 3.6 years, and in Islamabad, 4 years.
 
Health experts term the prevailing situation as a “health emergency” and outline that it exposes children as young as five-year-olds to respiratory issues, cancer and could hinder brain development. Other problems include cardiovascular issues, as Lancet studies suggest that exposure to PM is likely to increase the risk of “heart disease, premature death and poorer quality of life after a heart attack.”
 
However, while they call for various solutions in the short- and long-term, a study, “Charting Pakistan’s Air Quality Policy Landscape,” outlines challenges including lack of implementation of necessary standards, inefficient Environment Protection Councils and the federal and provincial levels, lack of compulsion to implement clean technologies, and budgetary shortfalls.
 
References
Lahore second in world for poor air quality,” Dawn, 1 November 2021
Air Quality Index (AQI) Basics,” AirNow
Particulate Matter (PM) Basics,” United States Environmental Protection Agency
Sanval Nasim, “Gasping for air: Punjab’s perennial air pollution woes,” Dawn Prism, 29 October 2021
Country spotlight Pakistan,” Air Quality Life Index
Tabitha Spence, “The crisis of air quality in Lahore,” Dawn, 9 November 2017
Maria Iqbal, Ali Osama Malik, Nizar Noorali Bhulani, Talaiha Chughtai, Taha Sabri, Mohsin Ali Mustafa, “Why Pakistan needs to deal with air pollution on an emergency footingDawn Prism, 20 December 2019

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